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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 September 2006, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Virtual school 'beats real thing'
By Marie Jackson
Education reporter, BBC News

Zack on computer at virtual school
Zack was previously educated solely at home

"Good morning everyone," says the teacher.

"Right, settle down. Now, has everyone got their poems out?"

Nothing unusual there, you may think, but this apparently normal English lesson is in fact taking place in a virtual classroom in a virtual school.

Back in January, Shan Jayran and her husband John Davies opened First College, an online high school.

Among its 22 students is 12-year-old Zack from Grimsby.

He was home-educated from the age of seven after suffering panic attacks and bullying at school.

'Horrible teachers'

Now he logs on to his computer at 0900 BST, Monday to Thursday, chats in the "main hall" with classmates before entering his virtual classroom, protected by a password, half an hour later for his first lesson.

"It's different from normal school. I'm quite enjoying it," he said.

I don't think I would ever go back to real school again

"Like any other kid, I don't like the homework. But the teachers are nice and I just make sure I have a good internet connection."

Classmate Natalie, 13, was taught at a private school in London until last year.

No school uniform

She loves her new school - the teachers, new friends and using her computer.

"At my previous school, teachers were bullies and kids were bullies in the playground," she says.

"I didn't learn much. I used to be afraid of maths because my teacher was really horrible.

"Now you feel more confident because it is texting instead of speaking out loud and standing up.

"My old friends thought it was really cool but their parents thought 'internet school? - I don't know about that'."

"I don't think I would ever go back to real school again."

There are other obvious appeals - no uniform, no school journey, shorter days, Fridays off, no rushing, no heavy bags and not being bustled about by large, intimidating crowds.

0900 Log on to the internet, chat to classmates in the "school hall"
0930 Classes start
1030 Break
1100 Lesson 2
1200 Lunch
1300 Last class
1400 "Home time"

"It puts them in control," said Ms Jayran, who sees the focus of the 594-a-term school as being as much about creating a courteous community and building confidence as about teaching subjects.

But it is neither a school for problem children nor a tutoring service, she says.

"It's a substitute. I'm not saying that ordinary schools are going away, but there are certainly going to be a lot more of these schools."

She sees it as an option for:

  • bullied children who need their confidence rebuilding
  • families living abroad who want an English education for their child
  • children with physical or personal health barriers
  • children who have been home-educated

On the curriculum is English, maths, history, geography, combined sciences and French with the option of taking International GCSEs.

In addition, they study philosophy and society, art and web design and Spanish is about to be introduced.

There are four teachers who teach up to eight hours a week and can work from home or anywhere with access to a computer.

It may sound straightforward, but Ms Jayran admits she has already had to sack two teachers for being "too boring".

"They were just copying stuff off the internet. We demand a great deal. If people wanted standard school teaching, they would not be coming to us."

No eye contact

Methods for rewarding, disciplining and resolving conflict are among the peculiarities that come with teaching online.

For good work, teachers might ping across a picture of a cute kitten or a robot.

They have the option of reprimanding a student privately - by clicking on their username only - or in public in a shared access window where everyone can read his or her excuses.

Resolving conflict takes on a whole new dimension as every interaction between students and teachers is on record.

But while students seem happy at virtual school and parents say they are pleased with their progress, sitting at a computer for five hours a day does have some side-effects.

Summer camp cancelled

There is no physical exercise or eye contact, little verbal and physical communication and no chance to learn how to handle the bustle and bullying in the playground.

Ms Jayran said there were plans to encourage more use of microphones in English and French, even to introduce webcams.

So far though, these have been met with some resistance by students, happier quietly texting and retreating from the pressures of speaking up in class.

There were plans too for a summer camp but poor take-up meant it was cancelled.

Ms Jayran said a lot of the issues to do with socialising and physical exercise fell to the parents.

Natalie's mother Hilary, who also has a son at the school, said it had not proved difficult for them.

"They have got a lot of friends who live locally and they get exercise at weekends.

"I can't really think of any problems with it. To be honest, I'm just surprised it's taken so long to catch on."

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